New Virginia MOCA Exhibit Is Turning Heads
With Turn the Page: The First Ten Years of Hi-Fructose, Virginia MOCA has turned another corner.
This major exhibition, two and a half years in the making, is not the first exhibition the museum will travel to other U.S. institutions. But it is certainly the largest. And it marks the first time the museum has undertaken major public installations both on and off its grounds.
The exhibition title is a reference to MOCA’s collaboration with Hi-Fructose, The New Contemporary Art Magazine in celebration of the latter’s 10th anniversary. Considered the best-selling magazine devoted to “new contemporary” art, Hi-Fructose was founded in 2005 by artists and Editors-in-Chief, Daniel “Attaboy” Seifert and Annie Owens-Seifert. Based in San Francisco, the full-color quarterly is distributed internationally, including in major bookstore chains and art stores.
In a candid and delightful public Q&A with Heather Hakimzadeh, MOCA’s Curator, Attaboy described the creation of Hi-Fructose as, in part, a response to “always leaving Barnes & Noble in a huff” after perusing the magazine section because it made him feel “not cool enough, not smart enough, not rich enough … excluded.” Annie described their ultimate vision as having a “‘This American Life’ feel. Intelligent and accessible but not dumbed down.”
Devoted to what the founders call “art which transcends genre and trend,” the magazine is democratic in the attention paid to countless styles of street art, graffiti art, pop surrealism and more “lowbrow” genres, as well as work by blue chip artists, both emerging and established. They aim to “go beyond the ‘alternative’ norm to deliver a diverse cross section of the most influential, genre-bending art of our time.”
Allison Byrne, MOCA’s Director of Exhibitions and Education, describes herself and her colleagues as “fans of the magazine” before the possibility of an exhibition arose. “We used their magazine for research purposes,” she noted, explaining that, sometimes, the only article they could find on a particular artist was in Hi-Fructose. So, when the Seiferts proposed the exhibition to MOCA, it was a fait accompli.
Together the magazine’s co-founders and MOCA’s curatorial staff distilled 10 years of the magazine’s 340 featured artists down to 51. For both, it was imperative to include at least one artist from every volume and, for MOCA in particular, it was important to include artists that both the magazine and the museum had featured. They also sought artists of lasting impact. According to Byrne, “All of the artists are making relevant art today,” and they have “amazing social media presences.”
Additionally, for MOCA, a public art component was critical, and that’s where the charmingly flamboyant, internationally-recognized crochet artist, Olek, played a show-stopping role. Her collaboration with community volunteers and students—all of whom were kept in the dark about what they were working on—resulted in a crocheted covering of Paul DiPasquale’s King Neptune in Virginia Beach, unveiled during the Boardwalk Art Show.
From Byrne’s perspective, all of these factors combined to create “incredible energy and excitement that we haven’t experienced before—and for all ages.” For sure, the May 21 opening, a ticketed event, attracted an energetic, demographically diverse and art-interested crowd, some of whom were dressed as characters from the paintings or wearing Olek’s crocheted suits. “Coolness was the groove,” according to one attendee—artist and high school art teacher, Jill Tiderman—who noted that the “hipster beat” set the stage for this “buffet of big city street vibe.”
Loosely arranged chronologically from right to left, the exhibition is easily navigable with the help of a concise and well-written gallery guide, recorded tours and informative wall labels, while ArtLab, adjacent to the Main Gallery, extends the experience into the interactive realm.
On the right, the earlier years of the magazine reveal the founders’ prediction for pop surrealism—impeccably crafted, exquisitely painted and technically superior. Pop surrealism is, essentially, an underground movement with heavy influence from cartoons, comic books, animation, illustration, fantasy movies, fairy tales, punk rock and more, combined with the mystery, symbolism and dream imagery one expects from surrealism.
During the Q&A, Annie acknowledged that, at some point, she and Attaboy realized they couldn’t continue to feature only the work to which they were most drawn personally but needed to broaden their scope. The work on the left reveals this shift, including more sculpture and more mainstream artists like Kehinde Wiley and Beth Cavener, whose work is not likely to be shown with, say, the “godfather” of pop surrealism, Mark Ryden.
Cavener is internationally known for large ceramic animal sculptures, which she uses as surrogates for “going deep” into the human condition. In a phone interview, she explains her switch a number of years ago from human figures to animal bodies as a strategy to become “more subtle and complex” with the ideas she is trying to communicate.
Ryden, who has graced three of the magazine’s covers, has developed a devoted following for his highly recognizable style, perplexing but captivating content and his iconography, including pink and fleshy slabs of meat, children, bees and Abraham Lincoln. He has also developed a few detractors locally, with Rosie’s Tea Party causing quite a stir.
The painting features a young girl in her first communion dress, cross around her neck, serving a tea party. On a table laden with fleshy meats, she is carving a ham on which are inscribed the words “Corpus Christi,” while white mice eat what has fallen to the floor, a stuffed rabbit pours what appears to be blood from a teapot, a wine bottle label features an image of Christ, and Abe Lincoln and a couple of dolls look placidly on.
The controversy, initiated by an offended member of the Virginia Beach Arts and Humanities Commission, pitted those who felt the piece was anti-Christian and anti-Catholic against those who came down hard on the side of protecting artists’ First Amendment rights against censorship. In between were many more who took a neutral, yet curious, stance in regard to interpreting the painting’s ambiguous meaning.
But that wasn’t the only controversy that erupted, though the second was less an issue of alleged censorship and more one of breach of contract, according to Debi Gray, MOCA’s executive director.
MOCA spent the last two years collaborating with Brooklyn-based, Polish artist Olek on a commissioned community art project in which the artist and community volunteers—who contributed thousands of hours—would use yarn and recycled plastic to create a crocheted covering for Paul DiPasquale’s 30-foot King Neptune to raise awareness about the health of our oceans.
"My mission was to deliver the strongest piece that would bring awareness to Mother Nature's current disturbing situation; namely, the alarming state of our oceans,” Olek explains. “I invited the local community to participate by adding their voices to mine. If we all work together we can solve issues and make the world a better place.”
A week before the project completion date, Olek approached the exhibitions and education staff with a proposed change—she wanted to add a large, black, rubber gas mask to the work, which, the artist explains, “would make a stronger point.”
According to a statement from MOCA, its curatorial staff wanted to give careful consideration to the idea before offering a firm opinion. Not only would the introduction of new materials initiate new rounds of City approvals. But MOCA staff had concerns regarding stability and safety in high winds and also feared that exposure to intense sun and heat could bake the rubber onto the metal sculpture.
Long story short—Olek added the gas mask.
In response, MOCA’s statement continues: “MOCA asked Olek to honor her contract and to remove the rubber mask. She insisted that if the mask was removed, the uncompleted crochet work would also come down.”
In the end, King Neptune remains crochet-free. But the conversation continues. “The Neptune project created a dialogue, so I think the piece accomplished something,” Olek expresses. “I hope art in general can inspire and initiate change."
MOCA would not argue with the value of dialogue and change in regard to contemporary art. However, in this case, they would have preferred that the piece “accomplish something” by virtue of the dialogue revolving around the meaning of the finished artwork, rather than the controversy surrounding an unfinished piece.
Turn the Page: The First Ten Years of Hi-Fructose will be on display through Dec. 31. Virginia MOCA is located at 2200 Parks Ave., Virginia Beach. Learn more at Virginia MOCA.org.